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Noon, Friday, August 4, 2000
Raymond wondered if, after thirty years, he would recognize his childhood friend Pepe. With growing excitement, he searched the faces of the midday diners entering the bustling Cuban restaurant in Miami's Little Havana where they had agreed to meet for lunch. Pepe's hoarse voice had sounded urgent when he'd telephoned Raymond's medical office in Coral Gables two days earlier.
"Hola, Ramon!" a voice like a truck tire on a gravel road said behind him. "Que gusto verte! How are you, Doctor Peters?"
Raymond whipped his head around with surprise and stared at the big man, who'd materialized out of nowhere and was now standing by his table. Dressed in faded jeans and a white polo, the man's features had been ravaged and distorted by age, and the mop of dark hair had been replaced by a balding, grizzly gray. Even so, Raymond recognized his best friend growing up in Cuba.
"Pepe Orozco," Raymond said. "You haven't changed."
Pepe broke out with laughter, making his face appear boyish despite all the wrinkles. Sharp and disconnected memories immediately flooded Raymond's mind with the unstoppable force of a tsunami, as he remembered when they were both children attending Catholic school in Havana. Pepe's childish grin hadn't changed.
"Hell, don't lie to me, Ramon. I'm forty pounds heavier than when we played basketball in Cuba." He pulled out a chair and sat down with a groan. "I'm glad you could take time off on a busy Friday to have lunch with me."
"I'm on vacation. The summer months are slow for me, so I usually take the entire month of August off." Raymond gave a vague shrug andadded, "Besides, I was curious. After all, I haven't heard from you in thirty years. And it sounded urgent."
"It is urgent. Believe me."
Raymond studied his friend's face and waited for him to continue.
Pepe settled his hairy arms on the table and said, "How are you feeling, my friend?"
"Fine." Raymond's left eyebrow shot up.
"Sorry about your wife."
The mention of Rebbie disconcerted Raymond. Another stream of memories, more recent and painful, flicked through his mind like a film in fast forward. He used to frequent this same restaurant with Rebbie; their clinic was only ten minutes away by car. She'd adored the fried green plantains. It dawned on Raymond he hadn't been here since that rainy afternoon he drove Rebbie to the hospital. She had insisted on eating green plantains before checking in.
"She died of cancer, didn't she?"
"Five months, three weeks and five days ago. How did you...?" Raymond's voice trailed off.
"It was in the papers," Pepe said. "Hope she didn't suffer much. Cancer can be painful, I know. What kind of cancer was it?"
"Pancreatic cancer. No, she didn't suffer long. She was gone in less than a month. One day she was the image of health, dragging me out of bed in the mornings so I would go jogging with her. Next day..." Raymond shook his head sadly.
"You have no children?"
"No." Raymond swallowed the lump in his throat. "We wanted to, but, to my eternal regret, we waited too long. Now it's too late. I'm closing in on fifty, and she's gone. I always wanted a son. She did too."
"Life happened. First, it was medical school. Later, developing our practice. After that, too much work. We always left it for later."
Pepe nodded sympathetically.
A young, shapely waitress in a white blouse with the top button undone leaned against their table. She had merry eyes and a smile on her face as big as her braless bosom. A plastic tag above her left nipple proclaimed that her name was Carmita.
"What can I bring you, gentlemen?"
"Give us a few more minutes," Pepe said.
She breathed in deeply and winked at Raymond. "Don't you work on TV, sugar?"
Before he could answer, she had rotated on her heels and slinked away, hips working.
Pepe's face broke into a mischievous grin. "I think Carmita likes you."
Raymond wondered if Rebbie would have liked Pepe. Probably. She was a people person, and Pepe was one of her favorite types--relaxed, easy to talk to, and a little bit mysterious. It was easy to imagine her here now, laughing and chatting with them about old times.
The silence extended, awkward and heavy, magnified by the background din of the busy restaurant.
"I thought maybe you were dead," Raymond finally said. "Where have you been all this time, Pepe?"
"Nicaragua, Watergate, Afghanistan, Angola and a couple of other places I'd rather forget."
Pepe's eyes darted to the other diners, and he lowered his voice. "The CIA."
Raymond started to ask more questions, but Pepe silenced him by a forceful wave of his hand.
"It was better for you I didn't contact you," Pepe said. "Besides, I didn't think you would be interested anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"You weren't very interested in anything Cuban, Ramon. You became a big-shot plastic surgeon, changed your Spanish name to Raymond Peters, and became a famous multimillionaire living in a posh area of Miami." Pepe's tone had changed.
"What do you want from me, Pepe?" Raymond said. "Surely you didn't invite me here, after all this time, to offer your deepest sympathy or criticize me for changing my name."
Carmita was back at their table, flashing her megawatt smile. Her fingers brushed Raymond's shoulder lightly.
"You ready to order, sugar?"
"Later," Pepe said without taking his eyes off Raymond.
Carmita's smile vanished, replaced by a pout. Raymond watched her skirt the tables as if on roller skates, push the swinging door into the kitchen and disappear. The smell of fried green plantains reached him. The restaurant was filling up with the usual lunch crowd. Cuban businessmen and tourists from the North, looking for excitement and a taste of frijoles negros. When Raymond returned his gaze to Pepe, his friend was staring at him.
"I'm here because you need me," Pepe said. "You have a problem, and I want to help you solve it."
Raymond felt blood rush to his face. "You have a lot of nerve, Pepe. You disappear from my life for thirty years and reappear again to tell me I have a problem? You're nuts!"
Raymond got to his feet angrily, rattling the silverware on the table and sloshing water out of his glass. Several diners stared at him.
"Sit down, Ramon!" Pepe commanded. "I didn't want to call you; I had to, you understand? And if I left you alone all these years, it was for your own good, comprendes?"
Raymond sat down reluctantly. He took a deep breath, willing his heartbeat to return to normal. Raymond was accustomed to controlled surgical precision. He did not like surprises, and he was losing patience with Pepe.
"That's better," Pepe said. "Why don't we call Carmita and order something to eat first? I'm hungry, aren't you?"
Raymond wasn't hungry at all. The smell of food was making him nauseous. He noticed people lining up at the entrance, waiting for some of the diners to finish so they could sit down. Well, they could have his place. He was getting tired of Pepe and his secrecy. It had been a mistake to meet him here after all these years.
"What I want to know is what all of this mystery is about," he said.
"I'll tell you during lunch."
"Tell me now." Raymond's voice was low and hoarse.
Pepe stared at him.
Raymond took a sip of the icy water to clear his throat. "What do you want from me, Pepe?"
His friend exhaled. "I want you to go to Cuba with me."
Raymond stopped his glass in midair, causing water to splash his face. He set the glass down and dabbed his face with a paper napkin.
"Why should I go to Cuba with you, Pepe?" Raymond tossed the crumpled napkin on the table and clenched his jaw. "Besides, I don't even know if I can go. I'm an American citizen, and I don't think the U.S. government would let me go."
"Don't worry about that," Pepe said. "I'll arrange it for you. Leave that to me."
"You're not listening to me, Pepe. Why should I go? I have no family in Cuba anymore."
Pepe leaned forward, eyes gleaming. He waited a beat and then rasped, his voice resonant and scratchy like an old recording.
"To see your son."
Midnight, Friday, August 4, 2000
Marcela stood motionless inside the makeshift ring of flickering candles as the beat of the Abakua drums increased their frenetic tempo. Her body was stretched tight, like a cheetah ready to sprint after a stray gazelle. She wondered if the towering black man in front of her hid a double-bladed stiletto in his massive left fist, in addition to the Natchez Bowie knife concealed behind his back. X, she knew, was a tricky fighter.
Dressed in the traditional tight-fitting bodysuit and hood, the masked judge shuffled his feet in the ceremonial slow dance, sweeping the floor of evil spirits with the broom in his left arm. Marcela's attention centered on his right hand, which held a polished mahogany staff. When that staff came down, the duel to the death would begin.
The judge raised his head, lowered the staff and yelled, "Alan Manguin Besua!"
With the grace of a dancer, he jumped out of the way and bounded over the candles across from the drum players, to take his seat of honor and watch the fight. Immediately, X crouched and started circling to his right, eyes glaring.
Marcela muttered, "Protect me, Changó, Orisha of Thunder!"
A gust of wind rustled the perimeter of trees surrounding the dirt-floor backyard, carrying with it the pungent smells of candle wax, incense, dust and sweat from the expectant crowd. Marcela caught a glimpse of the well-lit sky above the sacred oak tree and wondered why all Abakua fights were held at midnight during a full moon.
The black man stopped, and every muscle in Marcela's body tensed in anticipation. She had studied X's fighting tactics and knew what to expect. X liked to move clockwise, left arm extended like a boxer and right hand with the knife blade pointed upward, hidden behind his back. He would pause for a beat, take a lightning-fast stutter step forward, and jab with his left arm. Typically, his opponent would react by trying to block the black man's left hand--and that was when X would leap forward and bring the other arm around, like a boxer throwing a right hook, at the same time extending the Bowie knife. Even a boxer with the fastest reflexes in the world couldn't move his head backward fast enough to avoid the twelve-inch steel blade protruding from X's massive fist.
Marcela had witnessed a couple of X's fights, and they hadn't been pretty. X didn't care where the knife landed as long as the blade struck flesh. Sometimes, mercifully for his opponent, the blade would slash the neck cleanly, ending the fight with one blow. More often, however, it would hack the face or the head ... and X had to administer, with relish, a series of violent and gory follow-up blows to finish his opponent.
The results of X's fights were always gruesome. X liked it that way. The gore added to his reputation as a vicious and unbeatable fighter. No one remembered what X's real name was. He had become X to the world when an Abakua brother, many fights ago, leaned over the bleeding figure of a soon-to-be dead opponent and quipped, "This one's going to be another X soon."
Marcela tightened her grip on the Interceptor 911 she used for knife fighting because of its light weight and serrated blade. Her life depended on split-second timing, and the big man struck as fast as a deadly cobra. She knew she would only get one chance.
But instead of attacking her, X threw his head back and roared with laughter, letting Marcela smell the rum on his breath. "No Changó is gonna save you tonight, Santera."
Marcela hoped X had drunk the entire bottle. She needed all the breaks she could get against an opponent known to have killed more than forty men already. And he was only twenty-eight, just a year older than her. Marcela watched the black man run his wet tongue over his lips and then rub his fist suggestively against his crotch. The rumor among the Abakuas, confirmed by his wife Cuca, was that X's penis was bigger than his knife.
Marcela had to agree X was a fine manly specimen, with rippling muscles and a handsome face, reminiscent of a darker and more rugged Muhammad Ali in his prime. His sexual appetite was as legendary as his fighting skills. Perhaps, if Marcela had been into men, she would have fallen for him. But Marcela liked women--a fact that irked X.
It had been X who had challenged Marcela to a duel, on a point of honor to be cleansed only with blood. It was an Abakua tradition, brought to Cuba from Nigeria when the order arrived in the island in the early nineteenth century. Marcela had had an affair with X's wife. Marcela, the only woman Abakua in Havana, had to accept the challenge or abandon the secret society in dishonor.
Honor. What a misused and misunderstood word. X only had to invoke honor to justify killing. Not that Marcela was free from sin. Of the dozen men she'd killed, at least one, her first, had been in the name of honor. X reminded her of the man she'd fought in defense of her mother's honor, who claimed the man had raped her. Marcela had never quite believed the story, for her mother had always had a weakness for men. Marcela had found her in bed with their handsome next-door neighbor, a Venezuelan who'd abandoned his wife and teenaged daughter to come to Cuba and join the Abakuas.
Marcela's father had gone back to Russia by then, recalled to fight in Afghanistan, where he'd been killed in battle. Marcela had inherited her straight nose, honey skin tone and amber-colored eyes from him. Oh, how she missed her father. He'd been a bear of a man with powerful yet caring hands and the most beautiful smile Marcela had ever seen. He'd taught Marcela how to shoot a gun and fight with a knife in close combat.
It had all come in handy to Marcela when she'd challenged that first man to a duel. The man was a skilled fighter with a few kills to his name already, and she was but a bumbling fifteen-year-old teenager. The man had made the mistake of underestimating Marcela. The duel had lasted fifty-one seconds, the fastest Abakua knife fight on record. Marcela had tricked the man with a fake parry to his gonads, followed by a lightning-quick slashing of his throat. Smelling the pungent odor of fresh blood laced with sweat, adrenaline and fear became her aphrodisiac. It was then Marcela realized she loved killing.
Marcela would never try the same move on X, though. He was too smart to fall for it.
X flashed a smile, his teeth a ghostly white against his glossy ebony skin. "Changó needs a new woman to fuck. He's waiting for your ass, Santera."
Blasphemer, Marcela thought. I'll make you pay for that. Guide my hand, Changó.
While it was from her white Russian father that Marcela had learned to fight, it was from her black-as-midnight mother from Guanabacoa she had learned the arts of Santeria. She had become a daughter of Changó at eleven, an apprentice Santera at thirteen and had been initiated as a full-fledged Santera at fourteen. Black and white. Not a bad combination. It turns out an attractive café con leche sometimes.
The drums beat louder. A woman's wail rose above the screaming voices of the spectators in a pleading, staccato request. "Kill ... kill ... kill..."
Marcela recognized Cuca's voice.
The crowd took up the chant, keeping time with the drums.
X started moving again. Marcela moved too.
Cuca was X's trophy wife. A tall and statuesque white woman from Venezuela, she had flowing blonde hair the color of young corn and remarkable aquamarine eyes. Seeing Cuca and X together was almost shocking in its contrast. Marcela wondered what Cuca had ever seen in X--and vice versa. Cuca was the whining type, always complaining about something, a trait sure to irritate a man like X. And according to what Cuca had told Marcela, she'd required five stitches after X had stuffed his enormous penis into her for the first time. Instead of enjoyable, sex with X had always been painful for Cuca.
Men. They believed size and brute force was everything. Cuca had come to Marcela for advice on how to solve her problem, and Marcela, dazzled by her beauty, had obliged. Marcela had ordered Cuca to disrobe and lie naked on a bed of rose petals, where she'd massaged her body with perfumed oils and then painted her with watercolors from head to toe, using a tantalizing silk brush that made Cuca's nerve endings scream for release. When Marcela buried her head between her legs, Cuca had started screaming in ecstasy, long before Marcela's flickering tongue touched her flaming flesh.
Men were dumb. It was not the force but the guile.
The black man hesitated, and Marcela tensed again. False alarm. X started circling to his right once more.
X's move, a split-second later, caught Marcela by surprise. Instead of stopping and lunging, as she expected, X tricked Marcela by changing directions in the middle of a step before charging at her.
Marcela tried to move away from X's blinking-swift left jab, but she wasn't fast enough. The double-bladed stiletto grazed her shoulder, and Marcela felt a sharp stab of burning pain. In slow motion, Marcela saw X's right shoulder dip and his right arm start to come around. She knew she needed to react fast, but while her mind sent a million messages to her body, her muscles seemed numbed, as if immersed in freezing water. X's speed was shocking. Marcela saw the clenched knuckles of his approaching fist, the wrist twisting into position to deliver the fatal blow, and the Bowie knife beginning to rotate. A fraction of a second more and the huge blade would straighten and reach her. Marcela summoned all her strength and willed herself to leap in between the colossal arms, thrusting the blade of her knife toward X's throat.
There was no sense trying to defend against X's brute force. Her only chance was to be faster than him. X's fist was inches from her face, the Bowie coming straight toward her, when she slipped in between his arms. The black man's eyes opened wide as Marcela's body slammed against his and he saw the blade of the Interceptor. Marcela knew she would never forget X's bulging eyes, filled with the realization that he was going to die.
Marcela slashed X's throat cleanly.
The huge black man gurgled something unintelligible as a geyser of blood spurted from his neck. He stumbled forward, knocking Marcela to one side. She watched as the left fist opened and the bloodied stiletto dropped onto the dirt floor. A moment later, the Bowie knife fell to the floor. X's hands reached toward his neck and clutched it, as if trying to put the severed pieces together again. Blood seeped through his thick, outstretched fingers. Sobbing, he sank to his knees, and then, emitting an awful rattling noise as if he were choking on a slew of small chicken bones, he pitched forward and crashed against the ground with a thud that shook the arena.
The Abakua drums beat crazily.
Arms held her, and she knew it was Cuca by the perfume. Her fingers caressed Marcela's shoulder. "My love, you're bleeding. Are you hurt?"
Marcela shook her head, feeling giddy from the heat and the noise.
"I'll make it up to you tonight."
Marcela shut her eyes and nodded. When she opened them again, the fight judge was examining X's crumpled figure, a mountain of black muscles surrounded by a growing lake of blood. X's vacant eyes were open and stared at the sky. The fingernails on the hands still clutching his throat were fast turning a mousy gray.
"Fight's over," the judge announced. "The Santera has won."
Marcela leaned over X's figure and inhaled deeply. She loved that smell, a combination of blood, adrenaline and fear. It was the smell of triumph.
Holding her head high, she strode toward her seat. Cuca and the fight judge made a path for her through the crowd that had started jumping over the burning candles, anxious to touch her and congratulate her. She hated being touched by the sweaty and smelly hands of strangers, but it was the price one paid for winning. Everybody loved a winner.
Cuca and the judge led her to her seat, and she plopped on the metallic folding chair next to her big bag. She realized her cell phone was ringing. Only one person called her on that line, and it usually meant bad news for someone. She searched inside her bag, found her cell phone and placed it against her ear.
El Jefe's shrill voice said, "You finished?"
Marcela wasn't sure how to respond. She felt Cuca's fingers caressing her hair from behind. Marcela pushed her hand away. "You knew about the fight?"
"I know everything that happens in Cuba. How long did it take you?"
Marcela thought hard. It had seemed a long time, but it hadn't been. "Two, three minutes."
"So long? Are you losing your touch?"
Marcela tried not to let her irritation show in her voice. "He was big, fast and careful." She exhaled. "You didn't worry about me?"
"I could've lost."
"I was certain you wouldn't. I even bet money on you."
"You did? I thought gambling was prohibited in Cuba."
"There are many things you don't know about what happens in Cuba."
No kidding. Marcela nodded to herself. "What if I had lost?"
"I would've offered X a job."
Marcela stared at her cell phone in disbelief and then put it against her ear once more. This time she didn't care whether her voice showed her irritation or not. "You bastard."
"Some people would agree with you there. It's technically true, too. My father never married my mother."
Marcela exhaled in exasperation. "What do you want?"
"Don't be upset."
"Why did you call me?"
There was a brief pause on the line. "I have an assignment for you."
"To do what?"
"To keep a close eye on some people coming to Cuba soon."
"And for later?"
"Keep your knife sharp."